My friend and I are chatting on a smoking patio when I hear the faint strains of a familiar song through the heavy front door. The conversation shifts to that song, “Once in a Lifetime” by Wolfsheim, a synth-pop number that came out at the tail end of the 1990s and remains a hit at the L.A. clubs frequented by folks dressed in black. As I bounce up the steps to the front room of the venue, I tell my friend that it doesn't matter how many times I have heard this song — and it's been a hell of a lot of times — I'm not sick of it.
I dance-walk onto the floor towards the bar and the lyrics strike: “You took my wife, my unborn son/Torn into the deep of the ocean.” In the many years since this song was released, I've danced to “Once in a Lifetime” countless times and played it in my own sets on numerous occasions as well. Yet, that one line is always cause for pause. It takes a fraction of a second to reflect upon the emotional weight of the lyrics before I go back to dancing.
Two of my personal favorite songs to play in my own DJ sets are “Seconds” by the Human League and Visage's version of “In the Year 2525.” The former is about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and features the refrain, “It took seconds of your time to take his life.” The latter, which was originally performed by Zager and Evans, opens with the lines, “In the year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive …” Both songs consistently do well on the dance floor despite downer lyrics, and not just with crowds that accessorize with skull jewelry (although that's typically who I play for). The sound of the clubs isn't always an oontz-oontz-oontz parade filled with disco calls and punctuated by hands in the air. Dance music can be heavy. In fact, it often is.
Regardless of the specific genre, dance music is at its best when the artists use the groove to move through stories of love and loss, alienation, pain and the general shittiness of the world. That moment when the songs start to sound like beer tears falling four on the floor is when the dance floor gets real. The vocals that sound ready to crack from an emotional overload serve as a surrogate for your own feelings and the beat keeps you dancing long enough to, hopefully, release some of that stress.
Maybe that's what makes some of the best sad dance songs so sticky. Think of “Sing It Back,” a 19-year-old track from Moloko that still garners enough interest to chart on Beatport. Roisin Murphy sounds on the verge of tears as she sings a plea for a lover's return. Give another listen to “Blind” by Hercules and Love Affair and focus on the way Anohni's (credited on the release as Antony Hegarty) voice quivers against the disco groove. It is the embodiment of the loneliness that exists even in a room packed with people.
Clubs are sold through trends and scenes and beautiful people. They get a reputation for being artificial, filled with shallow partiers engaged in various acts of debauchery. That's not entirely false, but it's also pretty far from the truth. There's a soul inside the clubs, formed out of the hundreds of stories that inhabit them.
In the 20-plus years that have passed since I adopted the club life, trends, crowds and venues have changed, but some things always remain the same. Shy people will gain their confidence. Strangers will form friendships for life. Some people will find love, others will lose it. The news of the outside world will trickle inside and people will dance in celebration or mourning. Nightlife isn't all that different from day life. It's complicated, and that's where the sad songs come into play.
Robyn, the Swedish pop singer, got that right in her 2010 hit “Dancing on My Own.” The song's narrator has heard the rumors: He has a new girl. Now, she will spy on the couple even though that's the worst thing she could do. She ends up on the dance floor — “stilettos and broken bottles, I'm spinning around in circles,” Robyn sings — in search of closure.
Madonna knows this too. Listen to “Sorry” from her 2005 masterpiece Confessions on a Dance Floor. It's a wonderful, emotional song, but also an awkward one. Madonna belts as if she's yelling at a soon-to-be ex over the music. For the listener, the scene unfolds as if you're watching a couple break up under a disco ball.
The best dance music can cause a disconnect between your feet and your heart. Nothing can make you stop moving to the beat, even the realization that you're dancing to a song about a drowning, or the Kennedy assassination, or a dystopian cyborg future. But maybe that's the point. Awful things happen every day. Our history is tragic and our future often seems bleak. We might as well dance.
Sometimes, in the middle of the dance floor, it feels like a collective existential crisis is reaching a boil. It's not joy that surfaces on faces so much as relief, as angst drips off our bodies in the form of booze-scented sweat. You'll emerge from this mass a mess. Last call lights shine on the shiny patches of skin peeking out from under the layers of primer, foundation and face powder. Black eyeliner has run and collected in the tiny crevices under your eyes. Your hair is wet and clumped into strange new styles. You look awful, but you feel awesome. The sad songs helped.